If you’re into sourdough, then you’ve no doubt found yourself on a quest to achieve that epically open, cavernous crumb, that is so sought after…well, on Instagram and Facebook anyway! You’ll also be aware that getting that style of crumb is not as easy as you might have hoped, resulting in loaf after loaf of flat, spread out, knobbly bread. Well good news, Ciabatta is exactly that! A somewhat flat and elongated loaf with a knobbly crust, which makes this classic Italian ‘slipper’ your best friend when it comes to experimenting with high hydration dough.
When starting out in sourdough bread baking, my mantra is to keep the hydration low – around 60 to 65%. I find it makes a more forgiving dough and helps to ensure a decent loaf with a light crumb and a crisp crust, even if you don’t quite judge your fermentation to perfection or you slip up on your shaping. However, you can complement this approach by employing a two-pronged attack; a low hydration boule/battard to learn shaping and scoring techniques, and at the other end of the scale, a high hydration dough – anything from 75 to 85%, to practice wet dough handling. The real advantage of working with this Ciabatta dough is that you can experiment with the bulk and final proofing times and not have to worry about pushing it too far, resulting in a disappointing pancake. Obviously, there are limits, but as long as you are getting good fermentation with a decent increase in volume, this high hydration dough should transform into light and airy Ciabatta. Splitting the baked loaves open horizontally allows you to study the crumb and gives you real insight into how increased hydration and long fermentation affects the structure.
I have always had the mindset that pushing bulk fermentation and final proof times will result in the lightest and most open crumb, but through my experiments with this recipe, I have found that’s not necessarily the case. It’s not quite as black and white as that. Yes, pushing the duration of both these elements will ensure a light and airy loaf, but push them too far and you’ll lose that irregular, open structure, that is so attractive and appealing. It seems that over time, the bubbles within the dough start to regulate in size and dispersion, giving a texture akin to a natural sea sponge. Cut them too short however and you’ll find yourself back in the familiar territory of early days sourdough baking….dense and gummy. The key here though is to experiment; go longer rather than shorter with your proofs, embrace the stickiness and increase the hydration to 80% or 85% and just see how the results are affected. As long as you can wrangle the dough into some kind of shape and you get a good increase in volume during your proofs, you’ll bake some lovely, authentic and rustic Ciabatta. Stuff them with prosciutto, mozzarella, tomatoes and pesto for a ‘taste of Italy’ sandwich or simply tear them into pieces and dip them in oil and balsamic vinegar with your aperitif. Whatever you do with them, capitalise on this dough's forgivingness and become a better and more knowledgeable baker for it.
In bocca al lupo!
50g Strong White Bread Flour
80g Leaven (maintain the remaining amount as your starter for next time)
400g Strong White Bread Flour
Rice Flour/Semolina Flour for dusting
Build your leaven so it is at its peak when you come to use it, this is usually 6 to 8 hours in advance.
In a glass jar mix together your starter, flour and water. I usually feed my starter with a combination of white flour and Rye, but when making Ciabatta or Baguettes, which are classically white, I omit the Rye and use 100% white. Use a silicone spatula to thoroughly combine the ingredients together, then clean down the sides of the jar so you can see the level of the mixture inside and cover with a loose-fitting lid.
Leave this at room temperature for 6-10 hours.
After this time it should have at least doubled in size or preferably tripled.
Mix your dough
In a large bowl, use a rigid spatula to mix your flour and the water until they just come together. You don’t need to go crazy with the mixing, just enough so there isn’t any loose flour remaining at the bottom of the bowl. Being a high hydration dough, this should be fairly easy, you’re almost creating a thick batter. Let this mixture rest between 30 minutes to 4 hours. This stage is called the autolyse. During this time the flour will fully absorb the water, activating the enzymes in it, which will begin the process of converting starch into sugars for the yeast to feed on and kicking off gluten development.
Add the 8g of salt and 80g sourdough starter to the ‘dough’ and again, using a rigid spatula or your hand, mix for approximately 3 minutes. This should be enough time for the leaven to be fully incorporated, but don’t worry about over exerting yourself with the mixing at this stage. We will use the first set of stretch and folds as an opportunity to complete the mixing.
Cover the bowl with a tea towel and now leave your dough to ferment at room temperature for 4 hours, performing stretch and folds every 30 minutes for the first 2 hours.
The first set of stretch and folds can be quite vigorous. With a wet hand, pull one side of the dough up from the bowl and fold it onto itself in the middle, then turn the bowl 90 degrees and repeat. You can do this up to a dozen times on the first set, this will complete the mixing process and also build up the gluten and start to add strength to the dough. Subsequent sets of stretch and folds should be done more gently, folding the dough into itself just 4 times, rotating the bowl a quarter turn between each fold. Once you have done this every 30 minutes for 2 hours (4 sets), leave the dough to bulk ferment undisturbed for the final two hours.
Once the room temperature bulk ferment is complete, cover the bowl with clingfilm and place the dough in the fridge overnight (approx. 12 hours) to cold proof. This will add flavour to the finished loaves and also stiffen the dough to make handling a little easier when it comes to dividing and shaping. If you don’t want to do a long cold proof, continue to bulk ferment at room temperature for a further 2 to 3 hours and then chill in the fridge for just an hour.
Now it’s time to divide and shape the dough. Generously dust a work surface with rice flour and a little semolina flour before turning your dough out on to it. Being careful not to tear it or deflate it too much, gently stretch it out into a square shape. Liberally sprinkle the top of the dough with semolina flour and then use a dough scraper or a large knife to divide your dough into four equal pieces. The four corners that have now been created in the middle of the dough will be thicker than the rest, so you want to rotate each piece so that corner is furthest away from you in a diamond shape.
To shape the ciabatta, lift up that top corner and roll it in on itself a couple of times, then fold the bottom corner up over it to create a cylinder with triangular sides. Now take those two sides in each hand and give them a gentle stretch away from each other before folding them over into the middle. Don’t overlap them or you’ll build a thick middle to each loaf, you want them to just be touching at most. Now flip the shaped dough over so the seams are underneath, you should find from the top that you have created a fairly neat rectangle. Once you have done this with all four pieces, leave them on a well-floured area of your worktop to relax for 30 minutes.
Before you give your loaves their final proof, you just want to give them a little stretch to ensure that classic ciabatta shape, so holding the two ends of each rectangle, gently stretch each one to your desired length before placing it on a well-floured Couche, tea towel or ‘Parchment Couche’, if you are following my method. To do this, you need to cut a length of parchment paper approximately 25cms longer than your baking tray. Dust this with a mixture of flour and semolina and then lay each ciabatta down about two inches apart, before pinching the paper up in the gaps to create a wall between each one. Just like using a fabric Couche, concertina them together, creating channels for the dough to prove in and prop up the end of the last channel (I use the handle of my bench knife, but a heavy book would also work).
Cover with a tea towel and leave to proof at room temperature for an hour. These loaves are quite forgiving, so you can proof them for longer, up to 3 hours, but I find the crumb starts to become more even after an hour. This is something you can experiment with to find the texture you desire.
Pre-heat your oven to 250c (480f). When you are ready to bake, remove the tea towel and then stretch out the parchment paper, sliding it along until the loaves are evenly distributed across the baking sheet. Invert a second baking tray or grill pan over the loaves (you want two to three inches of room for the loaves to puff up into), then transfer into the oven. Bake for 15 minutes with the cover on, then remove the cover, turn the oven down to 200c (390f) and continue to cook for 10 minutes. The crust should be golden and dappled with darker blisters, continue to cook for a couple more minutes if they are still too pale.
Once cooked, transfer the loaves to a wire rack to cool before slicing.